Sometimes it’s the small things that make the difference. In 1992 a game was released called Flashback, which was ahead of its time visually and has since become something of a cult classic. As a 12 year old I adored it’s rich science fiction world building and compelling story and was amazed by its visuals. I played it on repeat for years.
Several decades later (dear god I’m old) it’s a fascinating game to revisit, as I recently did with its Nintendo Switch incarnation. The graphics remain largely very impressive, with moments of visual genius in how it pushed the technology of the time. Other than being low resolution, it hasn’t dated too badly. Much of what I enjoyed at the time I now recognise as being tiny baby steps towards the notion of ‘open world’ games: the entire section on Titan in which you take on a series of jobs to earn money feels very modern, albeit ultimately very small in scope; I’d entirely forgotten about the late-game hand-held teleporter, which introduces a fascinating fuzziness to its combat and platforming; I’d also forgotten about the ability to pick up and throw stones to distract enemies, which is now a standard and expected part of every stealth game. Those tools aren’t ever explored fully but they start to hint towards the expressive potential of emergent sims like Dishonored.
Other aspects of the game have eroded more significantly over time. The blatant Total Recall/The Running Man mash-up of a plot, which I once found captivating, is now flimsy, abrupt and derivative. The game design is frequently frustrating and annoyingly repetitive, although the Switch version’s rewind feature helps abate that somewhat. The game’s animation style might look wonderful but it forces the platforming into rigid, block-based segments which feels very restrictive. While Flashback doesn’t look its age, it certainly plays its age.
What struck me as a total success, and one too often overlooked in modern game design, is how the player’s weapon is interfaced. There’s a specific button for holstering and unholstering it, with the animation showing Conrad taking it out of a holster beneath his jacket.
This creates a palpable sense of the weapon always existing as an item, even when holstered. You see Conrad put the gun back inside his jacket, and it’s always there, ready to be whipped out in a moment of danger. It’s not an instant thing — he has to reach into his jacket, pull it out and aim. If you’re slow or unprepared, you’ll be shot by an enemy before you’ve even got your gun out.
Compare this to how most games treat weapons. Most don’t have the ability to holster a weapon, so the player character ends up holding it throughout the game. Games will often provide multiple weapons, which you can cycle through effortlessly in a fraction of a second. In an RPG, having a weapon in your hand or sheathed is more of an aesthetic thing, as the moment it’s required it’ll ping back to being active. In modern side-scrollers, the right stick on a controller will often serve a dual purpose, equipping the weapon and aiming it at the same time. The moment you start targeting an enemy with it, your weapon is immediately in your hand.
In Flashback the weapon is deliberately awkward. As well as taking a good half second to equip, it then slows you down. You can’t run and jump with you weapon. Instead, Conrad shifts into a defensive, sneaky side-step. To fire, you have to stop and aim. Pressing the fire button once will aim, with a second press pulling the trigger. It’s all quite laborious and unusual, but that inconvenience — which elsewhere in the game’s design can be irritating — leads to moments of active player expression.
Before you enter an unknown room, you might pull your gun from its holster, and side-step cautiously. Just like a copy in a movie. Before dropping from a ledge you might pull the gun, so that you’re ready to fire the moment you hit the floor. Alternatively, before you walk through a civilian area with people hanging out in a bar, you’ll put the gun away — initially because it’s slowing down the player character’s walking speed, but subsequently because it feels right. The gun’s affect on the player character’s behaviour, and the use of a dedicated button for holstering, subtly encourage genuine roleplay.
Critically, the end result is to make Conrad feel like a real person, who is holding a real, physical weapon. Compare this to more fluid and responsive adventure characters, who can feel more like mobile turrets. The fallibility of Conrad in Flashback, the fact that wielding a gun is evidently difficult for him, is a huge part of what makes the game memorable, and forces players to make interesting decisions about how they approach each encounter.
It’s interesting that the rather maligned 2013 remake opted to go for an instant-aim right stick approach, which you can aim in a wide arc with the gun appearing in your hand simultaneously. The end result is that it feels far more generic, losing that key element of the original. The original Flashback’s friction is often frustrating in a modern context, but the tangible clunkiness of its weapon remains supremely effective.